I was sitting through a sermon on Yahweh's response to Job out of the whirlwind, and it was just getting too intense, so I started reading through the Book of Common Prayer. And I came to the one “For Those Who Live Alone" (I call it the Prayer for the Lonely) which starts like this: "Almighty God, whose Son had nowhere to lay his head.”
Now I can see how this might be an appropriate beginning to and biblical "tag" for the prayer, "For Those About to Go Camping" or, "For Those Whose Houses Have Been Repossessed," but it doesn't necessarily have a damn thing to do with being alone or being lonely and if old Jesus (as Holden Caulfield might have called him) had known how much mileage old Thomas Cranmer and Co., Ltd. were going to get out of that line—"Foxes have holes, the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head"—I’m sure he would never have let old Henry the Divorcee even start the long process by which people got the Prayer Book in English.
Better to just strike their breasts and repeat mea culpa a hundred times a day than pray the prayers written in English by people who don't know the difference between a camping trip with your twelve best friends (plus a repentant prostitute or two) and being lonely. Better to have just turned the whole prayer-book writing operation over to Sylvia Plath or something. She knew about it.
Let's face it. This prayer has to start in the garden (when I was a kid, we called it “the agony in the garden”) and end on a cross (when I was a kid we called that kenosis—well, I was always an annoying little theologian). Or maybe in the kitchen with one's hand on the gas knob.
And another thing. This prayer has got to mention the loneliness of sweet Jesus' rocky pillow, knowing that one if not several of those Marys was just a stone's throw away and the (I mean, let’s be honest about loneliness) painful fact that Love had other lonely plans for him than the long embraces that sometimes heal loneliness and make babies.
If St. Francis were here, he would probably pray for the grace not so much to be consoled, but…
to do the dishes which have been stacking up in the sink for a couple of weeks now,
to shave (face, legs, whatever) though probably nobody will notice,
to waste one's lonely time dusting the furniture, though really what’s the point,
to uncoil from one's fetal retraction from the so much absurd emptiness,
and to just go on ahead and get out of bed.
The official prayer asks God to "grant that those who live alone may not be lonely in their solitude." I know some will disagree, but I think that this is like asking that "those who starve may not be hungry" and that "those who are in labor may not feel labor pains" or that "those whose hands are blistered forget for the time being that they have skin." Of course, people gas a lot about how solitude is a spiritual discipline. That’s why I’m pretty sure I hate spirituality.
Loneliness, too, is the sign of something. Something painful but not always evil. Maybe it reflects a broken truth we’d rather hide with drugs, or busyness, or common prayers. Sorry for being so unsentimental and un-American and all, but I do think there is something "proper”—if we can put it that way—(and apparently we can, since I just did) in people who are alone being lonely.
So, I guess when old Jesus prayed for the cup of suffering to disappear that day, he might have meant the loneliness too. But if he did, truth be told, his prayers weren't good enough. Not nearly good enough.
I can't imagine he was ever lonelier than when his three closest pals snored through his agony. He was alone, without a friend, with a god who clearly wanted him to suffer.
So, since He did not have the Book of Common Prayer to help him out, He stripped it down to this: "take . . . it . . . a . . .way."
That's the true prayer the lonely often pray.
And they often get the same response old Jesus did.
Joe Martyn Ricke is Professor of English at Taylor University, where he specializes in Shakespeare and Renaissance literature.